Earlier this year, in 2018, a series of wildfires broke out in California. While this brand of tragedy has become more common in recent memory along the Pacific Coast of the United States, their scope and impact on local communities has only broadened. Wildfires in November have claimed no less than 88 civilian lives and destroyed over 10,000 structures in California, while also injuring several firefighters tasked with battling the blaze.
One main ingredient in battling fires such as these when water isn’t enough is firefighting foam, often dropped over fire from aircraft. Firefighting foam has been used to combat fires by military, fire departments, and airport personnel in emergencies since the 1940s and its invention and use led to countless lives being saved which would otherwise have been lost due to these fires.
More recently, however, a new anagram has been circulating through various organizations, communities, and government agencies in relation to the use of firefighting foam: PFAS/PFOS. “Per- and polyfluoroakyl substances,” as told by EPA, “are a group of man-made chemicals that include PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and many other chemicals” which were (and in some cases, still are) manufactured globally for widespread use in various industries. Like PCBs, DDT, and other contaminants we here at ecoSPEARS address in awareness campaigns, PFAS are persistent in that they do not naturally degrade in the environment and pose a number of adverse risks to human health and wildlife once ingested. Unfortunately, PFAS are just as extensive as PCBs in the range of areas where they can be found including food, water, and even commercial household products such as stain-resistant, water-repellant and non-stick paints, waxes, cleaning products, and cookware. The next time you go through your kitchen, look for products that include or use the material Teflon – this is the most common source of PFAS in most modern households
To clarify before we continue, please note that PFAS is the larger umbrella term for compounds which include PFOA, PFOS, PFBS, and GenX chemicals. PFOA and PFOS are the most widely produced (and therefore the most commonly found in nature) of these chemicals, and GenX is the common trade name for fluoropolymers (such as non-stick coatings) made without perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
Similar to PCBs, PFAS have been studied and shown to cause an array of health problems in laboratory studies such as liver and kidney problems and tumors. In affected human populations, PFAS have been studied and shown to cause low infant birth rates, higher levels of cholesterol, immune deficiencies, thyroid disruption, and cancer. While smaller levels have been reported in soil, groundwater, and sediments, higher concentrations of PFAS are generally found in and nearby areas that manufactured these chemicals in the 20th-century.
So what can you do if you believe you or your community are at risk of exposure to these chemicals? First and foremost: scan your household for products and goods containing Teflon. Chances are that any product in your home containing Teflon also contains trace amounts of PFAS. We also recommend scanning the US EPA’s webpage on PFAS/PFOS drinking water advisories to search impacted areas. There is also currently a drinking water advisory on PFOS for residents of the Oakland section of Burrillville, RI. You can also contact the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to gain more information on PFOS/PFOA contamination and make sure your area is at minimal exposure risk for these chemicals.
If you wish to learn more about these chemicals, their history, and what has been/is/may be done regarding their environmental exposure, several podcasts including “Environmental Report,” “Sustainababble,” “KNKX by NPR,” and “Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know” on Spotify, Apple, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts for recent episodes on PFOS/PFOA, PFAS, and Teflon chemicals.
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